Thursday, March 29, 2012

Esquire piece

Hi all,

So there'll be a link at the bottom of this post to a piece that's out in this month's Esquire. But first, a few words on it—for anyone who's interested in how the magazine feature sausage gets made.

Last September I'd been off work for a few months. Finishing my novel, doing a little freelance, just paying the bills. I get a call from my old editor, Ryan, at Esquire. He says:

"Craig, what do you know about hormone replacement therapy?"

Ryan likely asked for two reasons: one, he's a good guy and has a very kind habit of looking out for me when he thinks there's an idea I can do a good job on. And two, because of this piece I wrote many moons ago for the magazine:

Look Ma! I'm a Big Strong Boy!

A word on this article. I wrote it just to write it. Or rather, because I'd taken steroids and the experience was profound enough that it seemed I ought to write something. I wrote a 7.5k piece and just sent it out blindly to a few magazines. I didn't know any other way to do it back then—since then I've learned that, of course, you 'pitch' articles: an idea, a piece in its infancy, and try to entice an editor into letting you pull the ripcord on it. But to this day that approach is difficult for me: I started as a fiction writer, and I've always thought if I'd had to convince an editor to let me write any of my early stories, or novels, well, I'd never have written a word because they'd have just said: Sex addicts? Guilt-ridden boxers? Vicious dogs? Killer whale amputations? Uhhhh, no way kimosabe. Sell that shit down the road.

But anyway, the piece went out there. I forgot about it and went on to new stuff, as one has to. Then I got home from the gym one night and there's this message from this dude, Ryan, editor at Esquire:

"Craig, we got your piece. We really like it. [long pause]. This ... this never happens, but ... well, we want to publish it. So call me."

I was floored, of course. And really, I've learned since that it really doesn't happen often that a piece is picked up off the slush at a big magazine for a lot of reasons. Firstly, each magazine has its staff of great writers who are on contract to deliver x words for x dollars a year, and those pieces/writers alone fill a great deal of the magazine's article allotment. Secondly, well, it's not like a lot of the stuff that comes in from the slush is necessarily applicable to the magazine's readership—I can say so having worked at magazines myself and seeing what comes in via the slush. Thirdly, I'm not sure a lot of writers just send stuff to magazines; they're smarter than me, probably have J-school degrees, and know to pitch stuff to editors.

But I did once hear—and I forget where—that before that steroids piece, the last article that Esquire plucked out of the slush was by a little someone named Elizabeth Gilbert. Ms. Eat, Pray, Love. I don't know that's true. Probably not. But I'll hold onto that belief anyway, because it soothes my tortured soul.

Anyway, so in September Ryan called and asked what the hell I knew about HRT. As I recall, my answer was an honest one:

"Next to nothing, Ryan."

"Well," he said, "how much could you know in a few weeks?"

"Conceivably a whole lot," I speculated, rashly, as I'm wont to do.

So I started investigating HRT. I won't go into it here; that's what the article's for. So in a few weeks I'd cobbled together a pitch and sent it in and a few days later I get a call from Ryan saying, hey, great, we've got a story. And I could write it. We agreed on a fee, a very generous one, and set a deadline. Then I was off to the races.

Now, another thing: this piece was conceived as a two-author thing. Another well-known, very talented writer was actually going to do HRT, and write a first-person narrative of the experience. I was going to provide, I think it was, 4,500 words of sort of backing scientific evidence, interesting tidbits, etc and so on.

Things progressed. I did my research. Talked to my sources. Spend time at a clinic. Once I had all my interviews and whatnot I sat down to write it.

Once I'd turned my draft in I got a call. Turns out the other writer wasn't going to do the first-person bit. He'd been tested and his hormone levels were fine. It wouldn't be needed.

My only concern was that I'd written this piece (which came in long, btw) that had no first-person aspect to it. Of course I'd've done it if I'd known—once you've done steroids, HRT is nothing. HRT is safe. HRT is lemonade; steroids are hard lemonade.

But now the deadline comes in. April issue. So it was really too late for me to embark on HRT therapy. And there were edits to do on the piece I'd written.

A lot of edits.

One thing I can say after writing novels, stories, for newspapers, for other magazines, for this that and the other: nothing is quite so arduous and taxing, in my experience, as a major magazine feature edit. I mean, yes, all of us hope and pray for our editors to call and say:

"Davidson, you marvellous bastard, you've done it! Don't change a word, don't change a comma, we're taking this to press as-is. You shit a solid-gold rainbow of perfect prose you rascally sonofabitch, you!"

Now this never happens, and editors don't talk like that ... at least it doesn't happen to me; maybe the really great writers at Esquire, the Jones's and Junods and Sagers and Raabs Dittrich's, yes, but me, no, it's never gone down like that—and that's fine, I need the guidance, I need the editing.

So we went back and forth. I found new sources, talked to new experts, rattled new cages and got the info that I could. As often happens, some of this stuff stuck and some got kicked away. We worked on a new intro and conclusion, something a bit more personal. It was exhaustive and exhausting—not just for me, but for Ryan and the fact-checker and all else concerned.

And then it was sent to the art department, I put together a sidebar (with the help of Drs. Life & Komer & Andry, who were invaluable and I thank them for their input, along with Dr. Handelsman and Bob Johnson at the Toronto Zoo and "Jack" and all the other dozens of people I spoke to in the process of writing this) and saw proofs, and it came together slowly, then slammed together fast, then it was done and out in the world.

So it's done. And now it's the aftermath, when you look at what you've done and evaluate its effectiveness.

And I've got to say I've never worked harder or had more help editorially or gotten a nicer, more considerate "push" than I got with this article ... but I'm not certain that I hit it dead-on.

Articles, like stories, like novels, like anything, are delicate things. There is an element of magic to them—and the more skilled you are, or the more veteran, the more able you are to curry that magic I think. But after doing this, writing for a living, for, well, nearly ten years, I can say that I know my strengths. I'm always trying to work on them, stretch myself, be something more as a writer today than I was yesterday ... but it's a slow process, often a difficult process, and besides, there's still this inborn sense of what I do best.

When it comes to magazine writing, I truly feel that some level of immersiveness is needed. I have to breathe the story, get dirty in it, let it happen to me and report on it from inside. My best pieces (in my opinion) are like that: the first Esquire piece, or the bus driving piece published earlier this month. I can touch and feel and taste, smell and hear and interact with the story—it happens to me, I receive that new information, contextualize it for myself and hopefully pass some of that on to the reader.

And if this story misses the mark just a bit, it's not for lack of me trying—and certainly not for lack of Ryan working his ass off on my behalf to pull this into true. And I am really very pround of this piece, because it took me out of my element and forced me to approach something from a different angle. All the flaws in it are mine. Everything that's good in it are the result a careful, kind edit ... well, okay, a few of the good lines I cooked up all on my own.

But I guess it worries me a little because ... well, let's face it, opportunites like this don't come along often. I know that now. There's no cooler job on earth than I can figure than writing for a good magazine, but just about every other swinging dick feels the same way. So when you get a shot like this out of the clear blue you've got to do your best to make your bones. Make it count, y'know? Because who know when lady luck might float down off her cloud and gift you again? You never know, really. Maybe never.

So anyway ... that's my take. It was a hell of a process. I can honestly say I've never worked harder on an 8k piece. Ever. Hell, novels rarely get this much editing. But it put some stronger bark on me, boy howdy I can tell you that much.

miracle

All best, Craig.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

THE BODY PILLOW, MY NEWEST NEMESIS!

Hi All,

I've asked an evil presence into my house. It came the way vampires do: I invited it in. And now I am well and truly doomed.

It started, as all nightmares tend to, in an inoffensive and I daresay trifling way. It was Valentine's day and I was thinking about what I should get for the apple of my eye. Well, she was and remains pregnant and as such her back was ailing her rather badly. She said, offhand, that a body pillow would be nice. I said to myself: Hmmmm. This is something I have an opportunity to say to myself from time to time. Hmmmmm, I said. A body pillow, you say? Perhaps not the most romantic gift in the world but the intent seemed romantic enough: to alleviate some pain from the back and hips of the woman I love.

So off to the pillow store I went. It didn't look like a soul-sucking parlour of evil and cuckholding, but aye indeed it was. I was sold a body pillow—the last in stock! Top of the line, as body pillows go. Tippy-top of the line!

I came home well-pleased with my purchase. I even drew a funny little face on the pillow: SURROGATE CRAIG. Ha! HA! Funny stuff.

Because I could never be replaced by a pillow ... right? The affections of my beloved could never be transferred from me, a living, breathing, loving being to a friggin' tube of cotton stuffed with more cotton ... right?

Of course, Colleen loved Surrogate Craig. Of course! I was happy! We were happy ... for a spell. Then this insidious presence was felt in the bedroom, in our previously-happy bed. It took the form of a big soft white maggot—the accursed body pillow!

Now who does she go do when she needs a little cuddlin' and a-squeezin'? Not me, nosirree! She's found a more fetching and pliant, and compliant, partner. The surrogate! The cuckholder! Oh, how I despise thee!

And it was I—oh so foolish me!—who invited this big bloated albino sausage-creature into our communal bed. Oh, most unhappy day!

And ... this surely seems foolish ... but I believe the pillow is plotting. It wants me out of the picture. A shallow grave in the backyard and he moves in to take my place. Eat my food. Drink at my table! Canoodle with my beloved—which it's already doing quite brazenly, I might add!

So if my posts should suddenly stop, if I should disappear from the grid, I beseech you to learn the face of mine enemy and take revenge in my name. Behold: THE VILE SURROGATE!


All best, Craig.

Monday, March 12, 2012

WHISKER WARS


Hello all,

Good salesmen possess a key to the human psyche. They understand our hidden triggers, our innate fascinations and horrors, the drives we’ve eradicated from our top-of-conscious minds yet continue to lurk in our reptile cortex—that primitive brain center which compels us to consume substances which are injurious to our health or emotional wellbeing. Our reptile selves prowl the scummy stew of neurons and electrons that fizzle in the darkest pools of our brainpans; every so often a scaly appendage or forked tongue will flicker up from those steaming wastes to find gratification in the obscene or outright awful.
As a society, our communal reptile cortex is the culprit for such abominations as turduckens, the Twilight saga, dwarf tossing, Paula Deen, spandex, the lion's share of CMT programming, Girls and Corpses magazine, and The World's Ugliest Dog competition.
To suggest we actually desire these things is to invite madness into our souls. We can’t consciously desire them, can we? No! But as a culture we clearly like these things—we really, really like them. And may God have mercy on our souls.
The current reptile-cortex salesmen par excellance are reality TV producers. There’s this old wheeze in the ad racket that goes along the lines of: You’ve got to answer a need the customer didn’t even know he had. Reality TV producers bastardize it a bit so it goes: You’ve got to provide viewers with access to private hells they had no idea even existed—and once you get them there, they’ll stay of their own volition.
And we do. For hours and hours, we’ll follow the exploits of Botoxed housewives and buffoons hollering over storage lockers and cleanliness-challenged shut-ins and obsessive-compulsive coupon clippers and batshit ex-beauty queens who turn their daughters into creepy bedazzled harlequins.
I watch plenty of these shows, a fact I’m neither terribly proud of or abashed about. My reptile cortex needs to feed; reality TV is its ambrosia of choice. Yet I’m startled when I find a fresh delight—and more startled that someone, somewhere, had anticipated my heretofore-unknown desire and pre-emptively answered it. Whenever it happens I go through an approximation of the seven stages of grief.
STEP 1: SURPRISE
“Why does this show exist?”
STEP 2: RIDICULE
“Who the hell would watch this?”
STEP 3: EXTREME-RIDICULE-SHADING-INTO-RAGE
“No, really, this is stupid! Why is this on the air? This represents the absolute nadir of our culture and the sum total distillation of all that’s wrong with our country! No wonder the Chinese are kicking our asses!”
STEP 4: BAFFLEMENT
“If it’s so bad, why am I still watching it?”
STEP 5: BARGAINING
“It doesn’t mean you’re an awful human being for watching this, Craig.”
STEP 6: ENRAPTURE
“This … is okay. I don’t know why, but it is so.”
STEP 7: ACCEPTANCE
“C’est la vie.”
Such was the situation last weekend, when I caught a Whisker Wars marathon. What is Whisker Wars, you ask? A program providing a rare and dizzying glimpse into the world of “professional bearding.” What is that, you ask? Phil Olsen, series mainstay and “captain” of “Beard Team U.S.A.” helpfully explains:
“Bearding is a sport, which is growing and cultivating and styling one’s beard for the purposes of competing in a beard competition.”
Let me stop you right there, Phil. “Bearding” is not a sport. I say so with the understanding that today’s definition of “sport” is looser than in prior eras, what with poker and fishing qualifying in some quarters. But the simple fact is that if “bearding” is indeed a sport, it means that long-term coma wards all over this great land are jam-packed with athletes.
That said, bearding’s one hell of a subculture! Never would I have imagined full-grown men would dedicate so much time, effort and ego to their facial hair. Never did I think there could be a World Championship beard-off, long dominated by the Germans, where men style their face-pelts into extreme curlicues and zaftig whorls, teasing their mustaches into two-foot waxed rails that put Dali in the shade. I never thought I’d be privy to the daily travails of veteran beardsmen—beards hilariously caught in zippers, slammed in doors, chewed at by zealous goats, etcetera—as well as their big life decisions: Will Myk O’Connor, the Brooklyn bad-boy of bearding, shave before his wedding to honor his inlaw’s wish that he doesn’t walk down the aisle looking like some hipster Gandalf?
I couldn’t have imagined giving rips about men whose primary, nay sole, goal in life is so staggeringly narrow: to grow a beard. But lord help me, I do! I care about Jack Passion, aka Big Red, the darling of the beard circuit, the Muhammad Ali of bearding, who has earned the poisonous enmity of the Austin Facial Hair Club, a passel of rogue Texans jealous of Big Red’s success—so much so that they sought an alliance with the Alaska Beard and Mustache Club in hopes of overthrowing Phil Olsen (who openly dotes upon Jack Passion, grooming his protégé like a mama chimpanzee picking nits from her child’s fur) in a surprise coup.
I couldn’t have foreseen how the cultivation of a thick, lush, hairy drapery actually de-sexes a man, neutering his baseline sexuality. It wouldn’t seem to make sense, seeing as some of the great beardsmen of yore—Hemingway, Genghis Khan—were titans of malehood. But it’s a fine line, like a man who grows his fingernails too long; at some point, you just look plain weird.
I can’t believe I’d’ve become so emotionally involved that when Olson looks dead straight at the camera and says, with magisterial gravitas, “Beard Team USA grows beards for America” that I’d’ve thought: F’ing-A right, Phil! Go stomp a mudhole in those German’s backsides!
In one of the seven episodes I watched that day (forgive me!) Olsen declared his aim was to monetize bearding somehow, so that his “athletes” could reap lucrative endorsements, motivational speaking fees—JACK PASSION PRESENTS: FACIAL HAIR IS A MATTER OF WILL!—and competition bonuses. That stirred something in my own reptile cortex, namely:
The best beardsman in the world is undiscovered. He’s in the woods, living in a cave, a societal pariah. My goal is simple: find that brilliantly-beaded hermit and exploit him to the max.
Some of you might find my plan to be scabrously unethical. I’ll not deny that. But the world of bearding is infamously harsh—milquetoasts, shrinking violets and noodle-armed dandies need not apply, you dig?
But back to my plan. I’m putting together an expeditionary team. A cartographer, a follicular antiquarian, and myself. We’ve staked out some likely locations with the intention of departing post-haste; we will not return until we’ve found a magisterial specimen of beard-itude. Perhaps a ferrety-eyed shut-in who just wants to be left alone to die or a full-blown mountain man who despises humanity. Perhaps even a terrifically skinny fellow with a long bushy beard—my follicular antiquarian says we should consider this hypothetical specimen as our Great White Whale, based on beard-to-body ratio alone.
We will find this harmless hermit, drag him from hiding, comb the pinecones and squirrel bones from his beard, barber him, and enter him in competition.
And he will be glorious.
Perhaps you say my plan is sheer folly. I laugh at you. Spit at you. And if I should die in the woods, my body gnawed by wolves, well, such is life. And is it very much of a life, really, if it is not spent in pursuit of greatness?
Viva la barba!
Viva the beard!

All best, Craig.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Precious Cargo

Hello all,

So I'll have a couple of feature magazine pieces coming out this month. One for Avenue and another for a magazine I'll not name right yet. I've done some feature writing for mags before; I like to be able to work on a big canvas, 7-8,000 words, but pieces like that are tough to sell (not coincidentally, it's tough to sell fiction at that length, too, which is where most of my stories fall, so that's always an uphill slog). But every so often you get an editor looking for a longer piece that allows me to stretch my legs, or else I write a long piece and work really hard to get someplace to publish it.

The following piece, Precious Cargo, is one of the latter. It is a piece very dear to my heart, which maybe sounds corny as hell—but so what? It's the truth. I loved that year, loved driving those kids. My fear is that I've not done the experience the justice it deserves, or that I've written something—parts, at least—where my recollections and sense of things doesn't jibe with the recollections of the kids or their parents. It's tough. Fiction is fiction—you don't really carry a huge burden of responsiblity with it (anyway, not with the fiction I write).  Nonfiction is different, because there are people, kids, behind the words. So I hope I did a good and accurate job. I hope my feelings and joys translate onto the page. I really do.

My thanks to Kathe Lemon and the staff at Avenue for doing such a good job on it, and my thanks to my sources for volunteering their time. My thanks to the parents of the students on bus 3077. Most crucially, my thanks to the kids who rode on the bus. It was a hell of a year for me. Great year.

It's a long piece. If you're not a fan of reading off a computer screen, well, this might not be the piece for you.

Precious Cargo

All best, Craig.